The Ascent of Tai'shan

Lookout point at Tai'shan summit for the sunrise.

Of all China's sacred mountains Tai'shan draws the most worshippers and pilgrims to its 4500 ft (1500 M) summit. Many stay tghe night to watch the sunrise as well, for Tao legend has it that the sun begins his western journey from this point. It was fitting then that this be the mountain I scale on foot in China, even if my riding has brought me to far higher points on the road further south near Sonninjia.

No wilderness climb, this! The ascent to the summit begins in the northern suburbs of Tai'an city and proceeds, at a steadily increasing grade, up every one of 6660 steps. Lining this central route are countless temples, monuments, and courtyards. And yes...vendors of food and trinkets of all descriptions.

You would think as an environmentalist I would find this repugnant. I did not, even if the Sierra club wilderness-climbing set might toss a few cookies at the sight. The problem at Tai'shan and other such sites in china is not that people toss cookies, its that they toss the wrappers! And coke bottles..and other garbage. The Asians in general, and the Chinese in particular, seem to be completely ambivalent about this slovenly habit. Here in America, a consciousness raising campaign back in the 1960s, and the bottle bills of the 1970s, have largely swept our public spaces clean of trash and debris. Not so Asia and South America, where on a bad day you can ride along a roadside littered so splattered with trash the stench resembles a landfill.

As I said, I didn't mind the many vendors and rest spots for food and drinks. Many chinese--lets hope the number is increasing-- were disposing of trash in the receptacles. The crows and services added to the experience on the mountain, in my view: for I felt part of a great chain. The people ahead of me pulled me upward as they inspired me with their strength. Those behind I beckoned to follow in my steps. As you near the summit a sharp eye will let you see the final, steep staircases to the top. How the chinese porters can carry stones, goods, even other pilgrims on their backs up and down these terraces defies explanation. The muscles on their back thread over their shoulder blades like roots on an ancient oak.

To make matters worse for me I had a mild bout of the flu that day and was sweating profusely against the chilly breezes that swept up the mountain. Still, I bided my time and parcelled out my effort carefully, stopping to enjoy entrances with exotic names like the 'South Gate to Heaven'; and drinking plenty of water. So it was not long before i stood at the rocky outcrop that faces east and is the popular point for watching the sunrise. For me, only days away from the coast at Qingdao, it was meaningful in another way. The land stretched to the mists of the sea, with no climbs or hills of any consequence remaining. I had climbed my last of thousands, and almost thought that had I the Elven sight of which Tolkien spoke, I might even see across the Pacific to the far shores I had ridden along over 1 1/2 years before.

If you think the summit is all rock and scramble, how wrong you are. Temples and courtyards abound. I was there in spring with the trees all aflower..the whole crown of the mountain was a

light pink. Urns, inscriptions, sculptures adorned the small temples and courtyards; incense burned on the altars, bells and music wafted out of the temples. All in all, a most pleasant summit to spend several hours exploring. In fact there are not alot of western tourists at Tai'shan it being primarily important to Japanese and Chinese followers of Taoism.

For a treasure trove of information about Mt. Tai'shan visit the UNESCO site describing the geology, natural history, flora/fauna and religious significance of the mountain.